Craft beer fans can be a passionate bunch and one of the ways many like to showcase their passion is by covering themselves head-to-toe in beer merch. Whether it’s beanies, socks or boardies, it can feel like there's no item of clothing that's off limits when it comes to being coopted as a marketing tool by a brewery, bar or beer festival.
Head to Redbubble, an online marketplace for t-shirts, clothing and just about any other form of merchandise you can think of, and it's not just clothing you'll find adorned with brewery branding. You can grab yourself a Gage Roads shirt in a range of colours and a Bridge Road Brewers phone case or bed spread. Or, given the state of the world over the last couple of years, maybe a Moon Dog mask would better suit your style.
Unfortunately, at least in regards to those and other local breweries, the use of their intellectual property (IP) on the items on the site hasn't been approved by them, with the items listed without their consent.
The appearance of unlicensed merchandise on Redbubble is something that piqued the interest of Blair Hughes last month. The primary school teacher and fan engagement specialist – you can read more about what that involves here – says he spotted merchandise bearing brewery logos while searching for some new gear ahead of the school year.
“I was looking around Redbubble for stationery type stuff to use for school,” Blair says, “like a laptop case, because I know there are cool local designers who put their stuff on Redbubble because I knew it was an Australian site.”
Having worked in the beer industry, and being a passionate beer fan himself, the appearance of brewery shirts immediately set off alarm bells.
“I’ve worked in this industry, and I knew there was no way these breweries were putting their stuff up on this site," he says. "They’ve got retail shops that I’ve bought their merchandise from.
“Also, I saw the designer name and it was a random one rather than the brewery’s, so I knew that was a red flag.”
The ASX-listed Redbubble was founded in Melbourne in 2006 and allows users to upload their own artwork, which is then printed on demand. Products range from fridge magnets to shower curtains and bathmats like the one at the top of this article.
Blair says he was particularly concerned the site could take sales away from small Australian breweries, and felt there was little in the way of compliance checks when people upload designs.
“It just seems to be someone sitting in their bedroom that’s clicking and posted a JPEG,” he says.
“I was really concerned that there was this company that could enable someone to upload an image that they don’t even own – or the copyright or intellectual property they don’t even own – and start making a profit from it.”
If beer businesses or designers are concerned their logos or IP have been infringed, they are able to contact Redbubble to have them removed, via a takedown process that involves several steps.
In a statement sent to The Crafty Pint, Redbubble said: “Uploading designs that infringe on the IP rights of others violates the user agreement that all sellers agree to, and is something we take very seriously.”
The statement also said: "As the world’s largest marketplace for independent artists, more than one million independent artists upload tens of thousands of designs to Redbubble each day.
“We have a comprehensive system in place to handle IP issues swiftly that includes proactive policing, timely takedown services, keyword monitoring, software that identifies fraudulent [behaviour], a Protect tool for rights holders that includes a simple way to generate takedown notices, account deletions for participants that repeatedly violate community guidelines, and much more.
“We have had takedown requests from Australian breweries in the past and always work to remove the content expediently. Any brand concerned about protecting their IP can always work with our IP team directly by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.”
Although Redbubble say they work to remove content expediently, and the company’s website says they respond to requests within 24 hours, multiple breweries spoken to by The Crafty Pint said their unlicensed logos were still appearing online several days after asking for them be removed. By way of comparison, it took about five minutes for this writer to put a design on Redbubble, including an ABN and where to send money, and around 15 minutes or so for it to appear.*
At time of writing, this had generated a pending profit of $4.69 following the sale of a $29.33 tank top, meaning I have someone to thank for buying the worst t-shirt in the world.
Breweries aren’t alone in expressing concern about the way their IP appears on Redbubble either, with the Australian arm of the Hells Angels taking the online retailer to court over claims it infringed on their trademark. Furthermore, it's not just motorcycle clubs and independent Australian breweries with designs on the site: one seller has Moon Dog’s logo sitting beside the likes of 4 Pines, New Belgium and Orval.
Brook Hornung, marketing manager at Moon Dog, says it's strange to see Moon Dog's logo on the site, although he admits to seeing the humour in it, particularly when their branding appears next to some of America’s craft beer luminaries.
“It’s kind of like the knock-off DVDs from back in the day you’d get from overseas,” he says.
“It’s very flattering as a starting point – to make the cut with breweries like Stone and those big ones overseas."
However, Brook says it’s also disappointing, particularly given it's highly likely the people who buy beer merch aren’t doing it just to get a new bit of clothing.
“You imagine for people who are buying these, there’s an element want the actual t-shirt and they want to support their favourite local breweries,” he says.
What's more, some of the Moon Dog branded items appearing on Redbubble aren't in keeping with the approach they take to merch, meaning there's a risk a brand becomes associated with items that aren't up to an operation's usual standards.
“It’s pretty lacklustre, it’s just a massive logo on a white t-shirt,” Brook says.
“You’d hope that people go to the source and come directly to us, or the other breweries, to stock up on their merch. It’s weirdly disingenuous in an industry that’s actually very genuine and local.”
It's not just an issue impacting breweries; as Blair points out, local sports teams' logos also appear on the site and it's not uncommon to find knock-off sports jerseys appearing for sale in all manner of places as soon as new season designs are launched. He says he feels for smaller breweries, in particular.
“It’s a new world we’re in where you can pump out a design that can be delivered to you within seven days,” Blair says, “whereas a brewery might not even have their logo on a shirt in an online shop.
“I know the value of this because when I got to a brewery I want to get a shirt or sticker – it’s not just about taking home a six-pack.”
With a number of independent Australian companies now working with breweries and other beer businesses to stock and sell a range of their merchandise, the market for beer gear is clearly substantial – and growing.
“You go to the beer festivals and there are a hundred different shirts to choose from," he adds.
“It’s a huge market and [a brewery’s] revenue stream, not anyone else’s to rip off and piggyback on.”
While merch isn't necessarily a significant money-maker for breweries, particularly those working with local suppliers and producing small batches, Brook says it’s an important way to connect with fans.
“Beer merch is such a fun part of craft breweries," he says, "and I get such a kick out of seeing someone wear a Moon Dog beanie that's in the colours we released four years ago.
“You don’t make much money on it but you can’t have a better brand advocate out there than someone who likes your beers that much that they want to wear it proudly.”
A recent experience featuring an item of merch inside one of their Moon Doggies club boxes highlighted just how firm that commitment of beer fans can be.
“We saw a great photo on Untappd of one of the members wearing his apron – he probably naked other than it – with a beer in hand," Brook says, "and that’s what it’s all about really.”
*After careful consideration, the author decided it was prudent to not use The Crafty Pint's logo to demonstrate this point.